US lawmakers introduce electronic surveillance reform bill

A new bill from Lofgren and other lawmakers targets a 27-year-old electronic surveillance law

Three U.S. lawmakers have introduced a bill to provide more protection from government surveillance for people who store data in the cloud.

The Online Communications and Geolocation Protection Act would require U.S. law enforcement agencies to get court-ordered warrants before intercepting or getting access to electronic communications and geolocation data.

The bill, which would change the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), was introduced Wednesday by Representatives Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, and Suzan DelBene, a Washington Democrat.

A group of tech companies and privacy groups, collectively named the Digital Due Process Coalition, have been calling for changes to ECPA since early 2010.

The groups have advocated for changes because, in some cases, digital information stored in the cloud doesn't enjoy the same legal protections as other data.

Typically, law enforcement officials need to get court-ordered warrants to search suspects' PCs or file cabinets, but police can get access to stored email information, instant messages and other information stored in the cloud, as well as mobile-phone tracking information, through simple subpoenas.

Privacy protections "don't stop at the Internet," Lofgren said in a statement. "Americans expect Constitutional protections to extend to their online communications and location data."

U.S. residents expect that police should get warrants for access to cloud and geolocation information, she added. The protections "would enable service providers to foster greater trust with their users and international trading partners," she said.

The bill would require warrants for both electronic communications and mobile geolocation data, with exceptions for emergency situations, foreign intelligence surveillance and emergency assistance. It would prohibit mobile carriers from sharing customer geolocation data without a warrant or one of the exceptions.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Justice have said that changes to ECPA would endanger investigations and make U.S. residents more susceptible to terrorist attacks.

Similar legislation from Lofgren and Senate colleagues failed to pass during the last session of Congress.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags U.S. Department of JusticeZoe LofgrensecuritylegalU.S. CongresslegislationgovernmentprivacyTed PoeSuzan DelBene

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